Ons Jabeur and Jessica Pegula will meet in the final of the Mutua Madrid Open, both arriving in their first WTA 1000 championship match with wins over unseeded Ekaterina Alexandrova and Jil Teichmann respectively on Thursday in the semi-finals.
I'm going to put a positive here. I want to win this final. I'm going to put my heart, my favourite drop-shot, my forehand in. This match is going to be different [from the Charleston final]... I may go the same spirit that I played in Birmingham... Like I said, I'm going to leave my heart on the court on Saturday. Ons Jabeur
Jabeur, the No 8 seed from Tunisia, continues to make history as she becomes the first African player to reach the final of a top level tournament on the WTA Tour.
It took Jabeur an hour to beat Alexandrova, 6-2 6-3, who had come through qualifying, notching up only her 2nd win against her in 8 meetings after delivering a masterclass.
Alexandrova was competing under a neutral flag following the ban on Russian representation due to the country’s invasion of Ukraine, and the war has led to Wimbledon banning Russian and Belarusian players from competing at this year’s Championships.
“I don’t have great records in front of her,” Jabeur admitted. “I knew I was playing such an aggressive player.
“She hits really flat and hits a lot of winners, so in my mind, I was accepting those kind of winners and accepting that she can do any ace any time, any winner any time.
“I know I was the favourite, I know I was playing good, I knew also she was a little bit tired from playing a lot of matches so, mentally, I was really focused, and I was ready for the win, and not accepting to lose this time.”
Jabeur won 81% of her first-serve points to Alexandrova’s 63%, and 59% of her second-serve points to the latter’s 44%, while the Tunisian faced 3 break points and saved 2 of these as she converted 4 of the 5 break points that she carved out, striking 13 winners to 9 unforced errors against her opponent’s 11 winners to 23 miscues.
“I felt like I was sick of losing against her all the time, so I came here to take my revenge,” Jabeur explained. “I feel like this tournament is a revenge tournament, every match.
“I’m very glad with my performance. I know she plays really well, so I tried to really impose my rhythm. I’m very happy with the level I played.”
Jabeur broke Alexandrova 4 times in a dominant display, ruthlessly efficient with her usual sprinkling of outrageous drop-shots while out-slugging Alexandrova in terms of first-strike tennis, hitting deep and powerful groundstrokes as the foundation of her game.
The first set was the more competitive, with an early exchange of breaks, but Jabeur regained her advantage when she came out on top of an epic rally to break for 4-2 after a sequence of 20 shots before the Tunisian finished it in her trademark style with a drop-shot.
Alexandrova was aiming to become the first qualifier to win a WTA 1000 semi-final since 2009, but Jabeur dropped just 6 points behind her first serve and took her service game up to incredible heights in the second set, conceding just 4 points on her serve in the semi-final.
Ranked 45, Alexandrova produced an unfortunate run of errors in the second set that ultimately cost her the match when, while serving at 3-4, she fluffed a pair of groundstrokes, and followed that up with 2 consecutive double-faults, handing Jabeur a 5-3 lead.
Madrid is the 27-year old’s second final of 2022, following Jabeur’s runner-up showing in Charleston last month, and her 6th career final in total, with her only previous trophy coming at the Birmingham WTA 250 event last year, and the Tunisian now is guaranteed to rise from No 10 to 8 in the rankings next week, while a title would see her equal her career-high of 7.
“I feel like I’m keeping to test myself, to test my patience,” Jabeur said. “To test, ‘OK, Ons, you said you want to be Top 5, you want to win titles – here it is, players, champions you are going to play against. Show me what you got, you know’.
“I feel like the tournament is also revenge tournament, from Bencic to Halep to Alexandrova. If it’s going through this rhythm, I think Jil [Teichmann, who defeated Jabeur at Dubai 2021] will win tonight.
“I really hope they play for five hours and they become tired,” she added with a laugh.
“I’m just going to focus on myself, it’s been tough losing a few finals lately. I’m going to do my best and then give it all for this one.”
Jabeur’s prediction, however, proved unsound as the 12th-seeded Pegula came through her semi-final with a 6-3 6-4 win over Teichmann, the unseeded Swiss 24-year old, after 81 minutes in what was the last match of the day, which ended in the early hours of Friday.
Pegula won almost 63% of her first-serve points and 69% of her second-serve points, while Teichmann won 55% of her first-serve points and 50% of her second-serve points.
Also, the American seed saved 2 of the 4 break points she faced while converting 4 break points on the Swiss serve.
“[Teichmann is] a super tricky lefty,” Pegula told the press later. “It was hard because I felt like I couldn’t get a rhythm, really.
“Maybe the start of the first set she came out a little nervous and I was able to come out strong, which helped, but it was just tricky today.”
Although both had 13 unforced errors apiece, the flat-hitting Pegula found more winners on the day, with 22 to Teichmann’s 12, and that helped the American build an early advantage, putting her a point away from a quick 4-0 lead.
Teichmann, who had not dropped a set in the tournament, held on, though, and pulled back on serve at 3-2 before Pegula reclaimed her break lead in the next game, and the American found multiple forehand winners to tough out a service hold in the final game of the set.
The Swiss again fought back from an early break down in the second, levelling at 4-4, but Pegula prevailed in rallies to break again, and served for the match at 5-4, storming back from 0-30 down to clinch her spot in the final.
Pegula partially credited her quarter-final win over Sara Sorribes Tormo for her play: “[That match] made me be patient, because both play a heavy ball, and they both try to go heavy to my backhand side.
“I was just trying to neutralise the ball, and not get too impatient, so I think playing Sara really put that in my mind today.”
Pegula and Jabeur will square off for their biggest career title on Saturday in the final of the Mutua Madrid Open, having have split their 4 previous meetings, with the Tunisian winning the last 2 in Chicago last year and in Dubai a few months ago, but this will be there first clay court encounter.
“For me and Ons, she was ranked [in the seventies] like two years ago, I think I was like the same,” said Pegula, who joins the Williams sisters as the only Americans to make the Madrid final. “It’s pretty crazy!
“It just shows you, hard work and determination, playing week in and week out, just trying to get better every week, you can get to the top as long as you believe it.
“So I think it’s great for both of us. It means a lot to me.
“We’re both, I think, going to be nervous,” she added. “We’re both going to want to win. We’re going to go out there and compete and have a great match, I hope.”
Pegula, the World No 14, has been moving towards this moment after consistently strong results at WTA 1000 events over the past 2 years, reaching the quarter-finals or better at 6 of her last 11 WTA 1000 events, and winning a total of 28 matches at this level over the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
Jabeur is also looking ahead to the final: “I’m going to put a positive here. I want to win this final. I’m going to put my heart, my favourite drop-shot, my forehand in.
“This match is going to be different [from the Charleston final]. I’m just going to really give my best.
“I don’t want to regret, you know, saying like, ‘Should I have done this, Should I have done that, I should have won my serve at that moment’. I may go the same spirit that I played in Birmingham.
“The main important thing for me, I know it’s winning the title, but knowing that I gave it all during the match and not regretting that. I know if this one is not coming, then there is another one.
“I keep pushing myself to do better. The proof is that from Charleston I worked really hard to be in the finals here. Like I said, I’m going to leave my heart on the court on Saturday.”